Navigating the more than 200 known varieties of the Szechuan dollar can be intimidating; the erudition required makes the Szechuen 7 mace and 2 candareens the darling of sophisticated Chinese coins collectors. As the number of advanced collectors increase and knowledge about the rarest varieties becomes more widespread, their value have dramatically increased in the past two years and Szechuan dollars in desirable condition have already all but vanished from the market. The Szechuan Narrow Face Dragon, with a doubled die error on the obverse (see below), is one of the hottest varieties.
I had mentionned in an earlier post that this type had even rarer subvarieties, one of which I recently acquired an interesting specimen graded by PCGS. At first glance, both coins look very similar. The gaunt dragon has the same ragged one-eyed face that makes its charm, the doubling on the English legend characteristic of this type is still there as well.
The difference is indeed on the reverse side of the coin (see below). The attentive reader will notice that the top the “庫” character on the reverse is very different, as if the brush of the calligrapher let out an ink blot drawing it. The bottom “省” character is also maculated with a similar silver ink blotch. The full name of this very rare variety is 剑毛龙无头车花心点粘笔庫, or literally “Sharp spines dragon with decapitated Chē, rosette with dot, and smudged Kù” in English; what a nice demonstration of the compactness and expressivity of the Chinese language!
The image of a gauche scribe making ink blots is more romantic than the hard, mechanical reality: this kind of filling is called a “die chip” error. Damage to a small portion of the die or weakness in its design can lead to raised, unstruck surfaces, which often manifest as plugged letters or dates. A more concise English name for this variety could therefore be “Narrow face dragon with doubled die on the obverse and die chip on the reverse”.
The die crack on the left of the 造 character on the reverse, present on both varieties, implies both types were struck from the same die. This means that the die chip error coins were minted last and their number is only a fraction of the total population for this variety. It is very likely indeed that this die was scrapped as soon as the mint found out that the coins were “stained” by the very silver ink blots that now make them unique and valuable…
Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure to travel back to the Szechuan province to pay an overdue visit to an old friend. Between enjoying the wonderful food in Nanchong and sipping tea by the Jialing river in Langzhong, I asked my friend to show me the antique market where the year before she had impulsively bought a lot of sixty fake coins. It was an excellent excuse for a stroll and I was curious to see if there would be anything genuine there. After walking through the crowded streets of the old Nanchong, we reached the market and went from shop to shop. There was indeed nothing of value, and I was ready to leave when a seller in a 旮旮旯旯 (pronounced kakagogo’r) corner of the market told me that he could show me interesting Chinese coins if I came back tomorrow.
Szechuan dollar Y-238 L&M 345 Doubled Die Obverse
The seller kept his word and indeed presented me genuine coins the next day. One of them caught my attention: it was one of the famous Szechuan three musketeers (四川三剑客). The Sān jiàn kè is a trio of rare and famous varieties of the Szechuan dollar, particularly coveted by Chinese coin collectors. These varieties are very difficult to find in good shape, some having been struck with badly duplicated dies, like the one I just found.
The coin I had in front of me was a 剑毛龙 (sharp spines dragon), with a misshapen 庫 character on the reverse: the top of the vertical stroke of 車, which normally should connect to the 广, was missing. The full name of this rare variety: “Sharp Spines Dragon, with a decapitated Chē and a rosette with dot” (剑毛龙无头车（花心带点）) sounds like a dish from a French restaurant menu but it is necessary to precisely identify this particular type amongst more than two hundred recensed varieties of the Szechuan dollar.
This variety is famous for the doubling of the English legend, especially on the word PROVINCE. The weak strike on the dragon scales and right eye are also normal for this particular type, most likely from trying to duplicate an already damaged die. If we had to draw a parallel with the Three Musketeers from Alexandre Dumas, this dragon burdened with a doubled die may be Aramis, struggling to reconcile the double life of an aspiring abbot become soldier…
The 7 Mace and 3 Candareens error Szechuan dollar
The coin I got in Nanchong is only second in rarity to the 7 mace and 3 candareens Szechuan dollar. That error coin is very hard to obtain in good condition, with most specimen available only in VF grade or less. The Chinese name of the variety is 尖角龙七三误书, or Pointed Horns Dragon with 7.3 lettering error. Despite its stated weight of 7 mace and 3 candareens in English on the obverse, the coin has a Chinese face value of 7 mace and 2 candareens, and a regular size and weight, contrary to the early Kwang-Tung dollar of same denomination that actually had a higher silver content. This rare error coin is affectuously called 三剑客老大 by Szechuan dollar collectors: the beloved elder of the Szechuan three Musketeers. I guess this rare and fierce dragon could be compared to Athos, the stern fatherly figure which is also the last to make its appearance in the book.
Szechuan dollar Y-243 L&M 352
The third musketeer is conversely the easiest to find of the trio. Called 大折金珍珠龙 in Chinese, or Pearl-scaled dragon with Crooked Gold, its particularity resides in the bold bottom stroke of the 金 part of the character 錢, which features an extravagant hook.
The Pearl-scaled dragon is one of the most beautiful varieties of the Szechuan dollar: most collectors will only seek it in higher grade, with all its scales still visible (全龙鳞), rejecting lesser condition coins (somewhat harshly called 垃圾龙, dragon-trash). Porthos, the elegant musketeer from Dumas’ epic, would likely have most fancied this last variety.
A reader from Germany contacted me recently about an enigmatic coin he bought on the flea market for 5 Euros. While not a coin collector, he loves curiosities and was profundly intrigued by this unusual Dragon Dollar…
… a beautiful Almond Eyed Dragon from the Peiyang Arsenal mint, one of the rarest variety of an already scarce type. It was obviously handled with great care; the dragon had kept all its scales, his fierce eyes still as piercing as a hundred years ago, when it first went out of the Peiyang Arsenal.
Without the mounting marks at 4 and 8 o’clock, this coin would be worth at least 4,000 Euros!
The design of the early Peiyang dragons is interesting as it is very strictly conforming to the traditional nine anatomical attributes of the Chinese Dragon:
- Deer horns
- Camel head
- Demon eyes
- Bull ears
- Snake neck
- Sea-serpent (蜃) belly
- Carp scales
- Eagle claws
- Tiger soles
Additionally, the Chinese dragon has a growth on his forehead, the Chĭ Mù (尺木), without which it is unable to ascend to the sky (龙无尺木，无以升天).
The depiction of the dragon on the coins issued in the 23rd year of Guāng Xù has been altered multiple times, with most changes related to the dragon’s eyes – probably due to the difficulty in finding a Demon to pose and capture its gaze…
The Evil-eyed Dragon (三角眼)
The dragon engraved on this first variety has evil, sightless “Triangle Eyes“, not unlike the 1896 test piece. It had most likely a high mintage, since it is only slightly scarcer than the most common variety for this year, the Beady Eyed Dragon, but it is hard to find in good condition nonetheless. Most of the surviving coins are worn out and damaged. There exists two additional variations of the “Evil Eyed Dragon”, both extremely rare:
The Almond-eyed Dragon (过渡眼三角眼)
This beautiful die variation can seem superficially very similar to the Evil Eyed Dragon, with only the addition of irides to the previously blind triangle eyes. However, by looking carefully, one can see clearly that this variety is not a mere modification of the original “Evil Eyed Dragon” but a whole revision of the initial pattern. The shape of the clouds surrounding the dragon is different, more intricate. The thigh of the dragon is now shorter. Five dots disposed in a cross pattern were also added to the pearl of wisdom. This type is only second in rarity to the mysterious Hidden Cross and Hidden Rose varieties.
The Beady-eyed Dragon (圆眼龙)
The Beady Eyed Dragon (which is the most common variant of the 1897 Peiyang dollar) has rounded eyes, contrary to the all the previous dies made that year. Like the Almond Eyed Dragon, it is a complete redesign, with the surrounding clouds and the shape of the eyes being modified. The change from a triangular to a rounded shape will persist in all the subsequent issues of the Peiyang mint.
The Dog-headed Dragon (狗头龙)
This very rare type is the last one minted in the 23rd year of Kwang Hsü. The dragon’s head has been completely redesigned, with short horns and a much bigger Chĭ Mù (尺木) on his forehead. The shape and style of the clouds has also been refined. This coin likely served as the prototype for the 24th year of Guāng Xù dollar, which keeps most of the new cloud details and the same Dragon face, although engraved in a crude fashion. The very striking difference in style makes me wonder if the Dog Headed Dragon dies could have been commissioned from another mint, but there is no conclusive evidence to support this theory.
All these dragon dollars are hard to find nowadays, due to the initial unpopularity of these coins: they were the first Chinese coinage denominated in Yuan (圆) and Jiao (角), while the whole country was still using the traditional monetary system based on weight. Their rejection caused most of them to be melted in order to mint new coins denominated in Mace and Candareens.
Congratulations to our German reader for making such a wonderful Snäppchen!